Over the past 40 years, the Kronos Quartet has been responsible for more new music than any other institution, commissioning more than 800 works from just about every major composer on the planet. But, they had never worked with the iconoclastic violinist/composer/storyteller Laurie Anderson until they commissioned Landfall from her in 2013: an hour-long mulitmedia work inspired by Hurricane Sandy, which Kronos and Anderson brought to the BAM Harvey Theater last week as part of the ongoing Nonesuch at BAM Festival.
Anderson experienced Sandy's devastation firsthand at the Southampton home she shared with her late husband Lou Reed. (Anderson completed Landfall prior to Reed's passing last October.) Combining lush electronics with Kronos' amplified strings and her own electric viola, Landfall Anderson’s text bounced head-scratchingly between descriptions of water-logged pianos, a litany of disappearing animal species, and an account of her night in a Dutch karaoke bar. At one point, Anderson recounted the sight of her flooded basement, with photographs, Christmas decorations and acoustic keyboards all floating in water. "How beautiful," Anderson intoned in her distinctive disembodied voice, "how magical, how...catastrophic."
"I’ve always been fascinated by the complex relationship of words and music," Anderson says, "whether in song lyrics, supertitles or voice over. In addition, the conflict between spoken and written text fractures the stories, as well as creates an eye/ear polyphonic structure."
Anderson accomplished this eye/ear conflict through a new software program called Erst, which she developed together with the digital artist/programmer Liubo Borissov. The program translates musical phrases into words and symbols in real time, projecting them on a screen behind the performers. The music itself veered dangerously close to the saccharine in the early stages before finally giving way to swarming strings and electronics meant to represent the approaching storm.
In the end, Landfall felt more like a work-in-progress than a finished masterpiece from one of our most forward-thinking musician-performers. But, with the year Anderson has had - she said in a recent interview that this year has been "kind of hallucinatory" - it's a gift just to see her back onstage. For someone who professes to put her life directly into her work, one can only imagine what she has up her sleeve next.
More pics on the photo page.